🎶 I Am Ahab by Mastadon
“Clarity means, among other things, to know how the words come to meaning / to experience how the words come to meaning."George Oppen*
You can read the future, you can read someone’s face, you can read music, you can “read-only.” To read shares an Indo-European root with the Old Saxon radan, meaning “to advise, to plan, to arrange”; with Middle Low German’s raden, meaning “to rule, to predict, to relate,” and German’s raten: “to guess.” A variant Old and Middle English form, rede, still in use today, has senses ranging from “to counsel” to “deliverance.” A read cognate in Sanskrit, radh, is the root form of radhnoti, meaning “to achieve, to accomplish.”
In Moby-Dick, Ishmael, on the countenance of the sperm whale, tells the reader, “I put that brow before you. Read it if you can.” The verb here is triplet in meaning: to look upon, to discern, to foretell. Who will solve the riddle of this creature? The word riddle shares with read an ancestor in raedan, which in the Old English meant (like rede) “to counsel.” The oldest forms of riddle in English referred to anything whose meaning was deliberately masked. Riddle as a problem to be interpreted or puzzled out emerged at the end of the 14th century, right after read gained the meaning of “to study,” an act which seeks to undo riddles in order to know, to understand.
This is the meaning of “reading” that gives us so much anxiety today. If we read to solve a riddle—to interpret “meaning” correctly—we pull back out of fear that we could interpret wrongly. Incorrectly. Bad. I urge you, reader, to get away from this idea. Neither reading nor writing are about solving riddles—they are about sussing riddles out, locating a question that needs to be asked, both writer and reader puzzling their way through it, together. About his short stories and poems, William Carlos Williams wrote, “They were written in the form of a conversation which I was partaking in. We were in it together.”*
My favorite use of the verb, that thing you do when you fumble over the riddle and feel like you need to start over or just stop and turn away? “Read on.”
That’s Good Work for this week. Looking forward to what’s next.
Rachel and the Holloway team
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